Pros:Wilder, Mostel, Black
The Bottom Line: Better than I expected, though many will find it stagey and lacking in special effects.
The movie version of Eugène Ionesco's famous absurdist drama "Rhinoceros" has been too unavailable since its original 1974 release in the American Film Theater subscription series to have a reputation of any sort, but insofar as it has one, it is negative. AFT productions are now being released on DVD and VHS. Between the renewed popularity of "The Producers," which also starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, a "comeback" of sorts by Wilder, and the cant of the "patriot act," there should be interest in this lost work which seems to me to have been maligned before being put into deep storage.
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Having seen a number of the AFT productions that I missed in 1974-76 (The Iceman Cometh, The Homecoming, A Delicate Balance, Luther), it seems to be that "Rhinoceros" may be the most "cinematic" of a series of recordings on film of major mid-20th-century plays. "Rhinoceros" is not confined to a single set. It gets outdoors, though the major scenes are indoors, including the centerpiece, a scene lasting nearly half an hour in which Zero Mostel's John succumbs to joining the herd.
In Ionesco's play, a French village first has one rhinoceros on the loose, then more and more, until there is only one human left. The thick-skinned, lumbering, horned beasts are never seen. They are heard and talked about. The process of people turning into beasts seems a metaphor for civilized people abandoning their humanity in specific memory of the Third Reich (in Ionesco's native Romania and adopted France), but is deliberately open to interpretation as a more general inability to resist joining a mob. In the US of the 1950s (when Zero Mostel starred in the play), it was read as an indictment of the American fascism of Joseph McCarthy by some and as the cancer of communism debilitating Eastern Europeans by others.
A movie could have incorporated stock footage (and, nowadays, there could be computer simulation of the rhinos in city streets). The AFT production followed the play in not using special effects. In the already-mentioned central scene, Mostel does the transformation entirely by acting, even more than Spencer Tracy's transformation of Dr. Jeyll to Mr. Hyde (which owed less to makeup than Frederic March's and some later versions). Audiences accustomed to special effects bemoan the lack of visible rhinos, but audiences interested in acting can admire Mostel's work (and see how wrong Norman Jewison was to cast Topol in Mostel's role in Fiddler on the Roof!).
The role of the seemingly weak (unassertive drunkard) Stanley, accustomed to and seemingly even grateful to John's bullying (none of the breaking away as in the pair in Waiting for Godot). Wilder had (and seemingly still has) a forlorn quality through all the pratfalls of the farcical situations in which he found himself with Mostel (and elsewhere with Richard Pryor and in scenes set by Mel Brooks). Stanley (Robert Weil) seems particularly unlikely to resist social pressure. His officemate Carl initially rejects repors of rhinos in the city as preposterous. Both Stanley and Carl pine for the sweetly innocent secretary Daisy (Karen Black) in the insurance office in which they are employed (until rampaging rhinos destroy the staircase to it). As demonstrated by the social psychology experiments of Solomon Asch in the early 1950s, two people are able to bolster each other and resist social pressure much more easily than one. Eventually, the beast overpowers the human resistance in Daisy, too, and Stanley is all alone at the end, admiring the rhinos and deriding his soft skin and hornlessness and continued inability to fit in. Not an upbeat ending, but not entirely hopeless, either.
The universality of the message is somewhat undercut by the fashions, color schemes, and coiffures of the mid-1970s; and talking about plights rather than showing them is "stagey" (and Tom O'Hargon was a stage rather than screen director, having mounted "Hair" and "Jesus Christ, Superstar" on Broadway and the bomb "Futz" on screen); but "Rhinoceros" seems to me to be enjoyable as a filmed play, whatever one puts into the container of rhinocerosness.
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